Life After Cirque

Ah, the joys of public transportation. The train has just made its much-anticipated lurch forward – only two hours behind schedule. Good ol’ Amtrak, reliable in its perpetual tardiness.

After six weeks of living away from home, I’m finally coming home to St. Louis.

I began broken.  I lost two people that were dear to me, one to death. Everything I had prioritized for the past five years suddenly was no longer important.  The thought of redefining myself in a completely new city was wholly unexciting… and downright frightening.

My mornings were marked by that weight of dull dread that sat on my chest. The days were marching forward but I was stuck, paralyzed by indecision. Every once in awhile I would grudgingly allow myself to hope that today would be the day where I would find that magic road map for my life. It’s hard to find that clarity when you honestly aren’t sure where you made the wrong turn.

I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. And I don’t want to grow up.

I went away because I had to, for my sanity and to figure out what the hell I wanted out of life. All I could figure out in Columbia MO was that I was miserable and that I had no idea where to go next. I opened my email one day and out of the blue I come across an offhand message from Natalie Brown: “You should visit sometime and come train with us.”

The next thing I knew, I was on the phone asking if I could come the next week.

I was expecting to learn a lot from both Natalie and Asharah. They are phenomenal dancers that I have followed for years now, both with a completely different skill set to offer me. I knew their classes – Natalie’s American Tribal Style and Asharah’s Suhaila-based classes – were areas that I wanted to train in, but I wasn’t really anticipating how much I would gain from actually living in a house with other artists.

Natalie and Asharah became a little family for the month I was there. We would cook good meals for one another, discuss and sew costuming, train and do yoga together, work on pieces together – we managed to teach Natalie and perform the Suhaila Level II drum solo with finger cymbals and most of the Level III layering while I was there.

I realized there that I hadn’t taken a belly dance class since November.
I realized that I really had missed that more than I thought.
And I realized – and witnessed – how incredibly important it was to have community… to have those tiny families, those scrappy bands of people that share your weird. Where you can create, and grow… and heal. Few people get the rare opportunity to have several of those families. I’m one of the lucky ones that could call many places home.

I had many really incredible experiences this trip. I got hypnotized and thought my name was Susan. I cried during the best Reiki massage ever. I fell in love with quinoa (it’s a complete protein!). I saw one of the most incredible puppet shows of my life. I got to perform with Columbia Alternacirque at their Art Bar Show. I made my first fairy costume. Fractals helped me see a link between science and God. I drove to Atlanta to TA a workshop with Natalie and Asharah and dance a solo in the show.

And I had dance epiphanies!

1) The moments of silence and stillness are just as powerful – and just as important – as the movements themselves. I am always convinced my choreography is not interesting enough. I will sit and nitpick a 20-second section of choreographies for hours upon hour, trying to perfectly represent every beat, note and lyric. And I realized that this a form of insecurity and fear Natalie helped me realize that I need to allow myself to hold out some of the longer phrases in the music. Already I can tell that this concept is going to be very important for the development of my dance style.

2) Be honest in your song choice. Asharah helped me through a bit of a quandary when I was trying to pick my solo music for the Atlanta show. I really wanted to dance to “Song for You” by Alexei Murdoch, but I was afraid that the audience wouldn’t get it, or it wouldn’t be impressive enough, and I was debating if I should go for a “crowd-pleaser” song. Asharah reminded me that honesty is everything in any form of art that we create. I chose “Song for You.”

3) Learn how you work best. I worked harder on this Atlanta solo more than I have worked on any one individual solo, and a lot of the work I did was not accomplished on the dance floor. I had every note of my song memorized. I recorded and watched videos of myself dancing to the piece. I developed a pretty complete framework for my entire piece listening to it on repeat on the drive to Atlanta for several hours and had choreographed large chunks ahead of time.  I danced my piece out at the workshop space and ahead of time on the stage I would be performing. For the hour before I went on, I stretched with my iPod and visualized myself dancing the piece repeatedly. I did some emotional prep. By the time I went onstage, I felt like I could surrender and let my body remember and retell the story I had spent weeks teaching it.

I’m so excited because I feel like I conquered a pretty big fear. When you improvise, it almost feels a little safe. If you look awkward or weird, you have the “I was just making it up as I went” excuse ready  to defend yourself. If you try and fail… it’s a hell of a lot more painful.  Now I have a completely different idea of how I am going to approach choreographing and performing in general. I feel like a giant door has been unlocked.

One of my good friends told me once his goal when he travels is to live in places, not just visit them. Natalie, Asharah, Nate, Chris, Kendall, Amanda, Aaron, Jessie, Gina, Maria, Susan, Dana, Gina, Jaia, Maria, James, Victoria, Lacy, Christy, the Moodys, Mark and Wendy, Josh, Tom, Fred, Darbuka Dave, Christine, James, Ambur, and countless others… this was so much more than a visit. Thank you.